Egypt’s 4G launch is threatened as Cairo’s media crackdown sees greater smartphone use to access dissenting voices, putting telcos in the government’s cross hairs.
Egypt is facing serious economic headwinds, with instability and inflation eroding any gains. A 3.8% growth rate is modest by Egyptian standards, yet with 14% inflation the country is sliding further backwards. To make matters worse, the government has announced that public debt stands at $259 billion, and the 2016-2017 budget deficit is projected to be -9.8% of GDP.
In an effort to counter these trends, the government is cutting subsidies and considering a VAT introduction. On Tuesday, another element came into force, as Egypt’s telecom regulator approved the final terms for the country’s 4G roll-out. Licences have been offered to Telecom Egypt, Orange Egypt, Vodafone Egypt, and Etisalat; with the government hoping to raise $2.5 billion.
4G roll-out threatened by media crackdown
As one of MENA’s largest countries, Egypt has the potential to be a major telecom market, yet the government’s media crackdown threatens this. Specifically, Egyptian public television is fighting to compete with slicker private channels. This competition for market share is further augmented by the government’s ongoing crackdown on domestic and foreign media outlets critical of Cairo’s policies.
The alternate and often critical viewpoints expressed by various private and international outlets are very popular, as public broadcasters are seen as merely government mouthpieces. The efforts of the Sisi government to silence these outlets poses risks for any wishing to enter the Egyptian market. Al Jazeera has already launched a $150 million lawsuit against the Egyptian government, claiming that Cairo harassed and arrested its staff, jammed signals, and liquidated the local branch.
Faced with this crackdown, Egyptian viewers are not turning to public outlets, but rather continue to follow their preferred media outlets via illegal broadcasts and the Internet. A 4G roll out seeks to increase smartphone penetration – phones that are largely used to consume new and entertainment. Silencing alternate narratives diminishes the Egyptian media landscape and in turn disincentivizes customers from adopting 4G, due to less choice. This means less revenue for companies and the government.
Conversely, if Egyptian customers embrace 4G specifically because it allows greater access to the Internet and alternate media sources, telecom companies still face risks. The disappearance of popular voices from traditional media, will push Egyptians to tune in to other sources. Telecom firms will face increasing pressure to self-censor or comply with government orders to block ‘subversive’ media. Compliance will see bad press and a loss of customers, and non-compliance risks license loss and other penalties. Consequently companies seeking to do business in Egypt, as well as those already there are now facing another risk – that of increasing censorship – alongside existing economic uncertainty, security threats, and Egypt’s uncertain political future. This does not inspire confidence.
Egypt is destroying freedom of the press
Clamping down on news and entertainment critical of the Sisi regime will only engender further discontent and see a disengagement from national media in general. Faced with stiff private competition, the government is literally making meaningless cosmetic changes to public broadcasters to boost viewership. For instance, in an effort to compete with glitzy private broadcasters, Egypt has taken eight female anchors off the air, ordering them to lose weight. State newspaper Al-Ahram has supported the move, writing that “an anchor-woman’s fitness gives an impression of liveliness on the screen.”
This is exactly the problem – the impression of liveliness – which is being used to mask a stagnant media landscape. One of the affected anchors, Khadija Khattab, has criticized the move, stating “we need to know who decides whether an anchor is fit to go on air, and by which standards.” This is a question that not only addresses this body-image issue, but the systematic removal of anchors critical to the government in general.
2016 has so far seen as slate of attacks on press freedom in Egypt. On August 9th, the government passed amendments that bar police officers (including retired ones) from speaking to the media without express permission from the Interior Ministry. Offenders risk unspecified prison terms and fines up to $2,250. Rasha El-Ibiary, assistant professor at Future University, Cairo argues that “the amendments are tantamount to imposing a news blackout on all security issues.”
Mounting security and economic instability is seeing the government clamp down on Egypt’s media in two ways. The first, as detailed above, concerns efforts by the Sisi regime to forcefully silence criticism. This is seen in the ongoing trial of human rights advocate Gamal Eid, and investigative reporter Hossam Bahgat. Both men appeared in court on August 15th, accused of receiving funds from foreign NGOs as well as “inciting public opinion against state institutions [and claiming] in international forums that the country’s legal system restricts public freedoms,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Both men are facing life in prison.
Similar heavy-handed tactics were on display in early May, when police raided Press Syndicate headquarters, arresting two journalists critical of the government who had sought refuge there. The police raid was described as an “unprecedented crackdown on the media” by the labour union. Yehia Qalash, the head of Egypt’s Press Syndicate as well as two board members were also later arrested on charges of harbouring wanted journalists and publishing false news.
Government tightens grip on private media
Another means that Egypt is using to silence dissent, is pressuring private outlets to discontinue the contracts of media figures Cairo deems unsavoury. In 2014, Bassem Youssef – often called Egypt’s Jon Stewart – was forced off the air after his show ‘The Program’ was cancelled by ONTV after government pressure. In the same year Yosri Fouda’s ‘The Last Word’ was also cancelled by ONTV.
2016 has seen a noticeable uptick in dismissals, with the government silencing ONTV – an outlet founded in 2009 and once home to many outspoken voices. While Youssef al-Hosseini was temporarily suspended in April after criticizing the government’s plan to transfer two islands to Saudi Arabia, for most their dismissals are more permanent.
Since ONTV was acquired by pro-Sisi businessman Ahmed Abu Hashina in May, Jaber al-Qarmouty lost his contact with ONTV in June, with Liliane Daoud’s show ‘The Full Picture’ also being cancelled on June 27th. Hours later, Daoud was arrested and deported, allegedly because her residency permit had expired, although one official stated she had crossed red-lines with her criticism of Sisi.
Egypt’s media crackdown has seen an exodus of news anchors, many of whom continue to criticize the government from overseas. Bassem Youssef continues to broadcast his show from Jordan; with Youssef al-Hosseini and Yosri Fouda having secured positions at Fusion and Deutsche Welle respectively. The problem, however, is that while their Egyptian fans continue to follow them and watch their programs (particularly in the case of Bassem Youssef), the fact that they now broadcast from overseas simply confirms their subversive nature in Cairo’s eyes. Writing from Jordan, Bassem Youssef has characterized Daoud’s arrest as only the beginning.
The nature of modern media consumption makes it increasingly futile for governments to censor critics. As popular voices vanish from traditional media, Egyptians will increasingly turn to the Internet and their smartphones to stay entertained and informed. This will only cause telecom providers to become greater targets for the government’s ire and interference.